The Cleveland Foundation is the oldest and one of the largest community foundations in the country. Founded in 1914, the Foundation has helped shape the landscape of northeast Ohio and catalyzed the broader field of community philanthropy. Throughout its history, the Foundation has been on the leading edge of philanthropic innovation, demonstrating the ability of anchor institutions to drive economic development and cultivating a vibrant arts and culture hub unmatched by peer cities.

Yet even with this storied history as a philanthropic leader, and despite tremendous gains in discrete fields such as public education, the Cleveland community continued to struggle defining outcome measures, with systemic racism lurking as a root cause of disparity that the Foundation had not yet named.

In early 2020, the Foundation set out to refresh its strategic plan. Proud of its tremendous history of leadership and excited for what lay ahead, the Foundation expected a relatively traditional planning process. But the start of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the compounding challenges of 2020 upended the normal and led to a commitment to leverage this process to confront, wrestle with, and ultimately reset expectations across the Foundation.

Guided by the belief that shared learning leads to effective group decision-making, the strategic planning process was transformed into a learning journey for the entire organization. It started with listening. The Foundation conducted more than 50 individual and group interviews ranging from local civic leaders to donors to grassroots activists who had never received a grant from the Foundation. While stakeholder interviews are a standard component of traditional strategic planning, expanding the definition of “stakeholder” from the city’s traditional power players to this broader swath of community brokers, neighborhood elders and activists changed the tone, tenor, and content of those interview findings. Reams of grant, donor, and community impact data were analyzed and innovative efforts from peer cities and philanthropies across the country were uplifted. The full Foundation's board participated in the Racial Equity Institute's Phase I Training, where over the course of two days, they explored the historical, structural, and cultural analysis of racism and its impacts nationally—an analysis many of them had never heard or engaged with. What began to emerge was the opportunity to not only support important individual projects and programs but also galvanize the community toward broader, systemic change.

Read the full article about shifting strategic planning by John Harper at FSG.